OSHKOSH, WIS. — As state assembly candidate Lori Palmeri knocked on the doors of old Victorians here last Sunday, Ben Wikler stood beside her and watched. There wasn’t much to see, at least to the casual observer: At each stop, Palmeri recited what’s known as a “mobilization” script, a brief exchange with likely Democratic voters to ensure they have a plan to cast their ballots.
But to Wikler, chair of Wisconsin’s Democratic Party, there was much to glean. How was Palmeri presenting to voters? What was her energy like? Did anyone mention her criminal record, a legacy of an impoverished upbringing that was now fodder for a barrage of GOP attack ads? And did voters’ reception of her — their emphatic promise to vote for Palmeri, their reluctance to discuss their politics with her — match what his own models predicted would be behind that door?
“It’s wild, and somewhat unnerving, that the future of American democracy could well depend on how many doors Lori Palmeri knocks in Oshkosh, Wisconsin,” Wikler tells me as we drive away.
Political operatives like Wikler are prone to such hyperbole as elections near. In Wisconsin, however, the facts are on his side. Wikler is trying to fend off a state Republican Party that is both deeply enthralled by Donald Trump’s 2020 election lies and eager to rewrite election rules in their favor ahead of 2024. If Republicans take power — especially, a supermajority in the state assembly — “they start this row of dominoes that could affect the entire country,” Wikler says. “There’s a real sense of, like, a twilight struggle against authoritarianism if we don’t do everything we can.”
There was still more Wikler could do for Palmeri: Wisconsin Democrats authorized another $35,000 after his visit, on top of the $150,000 they’d given in the days prior. But Wikler’s days to act are numbered. He stopped hiring organizers in October. Facebook stopped accepting new political advertisements this week. There’s no more time to film new television spots, and Thursday is the last day to tack on additional airtime for ones in the can. The party can fundraise and spit out digital ads until the polls close on Election Day, but for the most part, the next few days are just “painful tradeoffs,” Wikler says.
Wikler has been meticulous in his preparations to navigate the Wisconsin Democratic Party through treacherous political territory, calibrating and recalibrating the time and money spent on races up and down the ballot. But the 2022 midterm elections, finally, have issued their last call; when the polls close at 8 p.m. next Tuesday, Wikler will have either held the line for democracy, or Wisconsin will be in the hands of a party that has made clear that the only legitimate elections are ones where it wins. Either way, there’s a good decent chance he’ll spend a lot of the next few years thinking about how he spends the next few days.
Wikler met the staffer-driven SUV near his home in Madison on Sunday morning, contorting his six-foot-four frame to shove himself and his messenger bag next to me in the backseat. He wore a Midwestern dad uniform of Levi’s and a University of Wisconsin puffer vest, his clear plastic-rimmed glasses perched above a scruffy sand-colored beard. The Apple Watch on his wrist had registered only four hours of sleep for Wikler, who had logged long hours the day before, among other responsibilities, hosting a rally for former president Barack Obama in Milwaukee.
Wikler’s strained relationship with sleep is a reflection of the stakes. The morning we meet, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is tied with Republican Tim Michels, who has embraced Trump’s 2020 conspiracy theories and has vowed the GOP will “never lose another election” if he becomes governor. Michels’ victory would empower the GOP-controlled legislature to, among other election-weakening measures, disband a bipartisan election commission that had defended Wisconsin’s 2020 election results against Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine them, as some Republican legislators have suggested they’ll do. But even if Evers holds on, Republicans could still take the power they need to rewrite the rules ahead of 2024. The GOP is only 5 seats short of a supermajority in the state’s 99-seat Assembly, and if they take it, Evers will be powerless to stop their plans. (“Could be living hell, to be honest,” Evers tells me at a campaign stop with Wikler later that day.)
With a gerrymandered map heavily tilted in the GOP’s favor, Palmeri is one of just a handful of Democratic assembly candidates with a shot of stemming the tide. “I’m losing sleep over the state legislative races because they’re so close,” Wikler says. “Nobody knows they’re happening, and because it feels, rightly or wrongly, like there’s more we can do to affect them.”
So this was how Wikler had spent many sleep-deprived mornings as of late: Crisscrossing the state to kick off canvasses for state assembly candidates who could stave off a GOP supermajority. That morning, we were on our way to an event for Lee Snodgrass, who represents Appleton and part of neighboring Menasha, a purple corner of a purple state. “This phase is about mobilizing people — if they vote, then we will win,” Wikler explains. “My physical presence helps recruit volunteers to do field activity.” That instinct is confirmed when we pull into the Outagamie County Democrats’ office and a volunteer shouts “rock star!” when Wikler enters.
“I try to avoid the rock star persona,” a sheepish Wikler replies. Indeed, Wikler more closely resembles an anthropologist, scribbling into a miniature leather notebook that rarely leaves his hand. He is affable and warm, but lacks a politician’s polished charisma. But Wikler is a rock star among Wisconsin Democrats because he has transformed the state party into a fundraising and organizing powerhouse befitting a state that decides national elections on a knife’s edge. The 41-year-old returned to his native Wisconsin at the end of 2018 after five years serving in senior leadership at MoveOn, a progressive advocacy organization. He ran for Wisconsin Democratic Party chair on a platform of raising money, professionalizing the workforce, and reinvigorating year-round organizing. He made good on his promises and returned Wisconsin’s electoral votes to the so-called “Blue Wall” in 2020.
But that was before the gerrymandered nightmare of a map and voters’ nationwide tilt away from the Democratic party as it held unified control of Washington. He often describes Wisconsin’s democracy as being on a cliff’s edge. “We had been at the cliff’s edge and fought back a couple of steps,” he says, referring to Evers’ 2018 victory. “And now we’re back at the edge. And there’s a big difference between the edge of the cliff and being in freefall.”
Backing away from the cliff means working “so obsessively” on the governor’s race. “That’s the biggest share of our time and effort,” Wikler says. “If we lose the governor’s race — a very real possibility — then it doesn’t matter whether Republicans have the supermajority.” But defending against the supermajority is a close second. “I spend a ton of time fundraising to support the state legislative races” — to which the state party has already given $3 million, with more to come — “and also figuring out every place we can add to get-out-the-vote drives that benefit everybody on the ticket.”
That also means some races don’t get as much support. Some of that is due to federal election law, which prohibits the state party from offering too much direct support to U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes in his fight to unseat Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). Some of that is painful choices. There are many campaigns he cares about “a lot,” such as the reelection fight of Attorney General Josh Kaul, whose staying in office will prevent abortion from being criminalized in the near term. The state party gave $150,000 to Kaul in early October, but at this phase,”there’s very little we can do, independent of what we’re doing at the top of the ticket,” Wikler says. So the energy is shifting to exchanges on the doors, reminding people to vote for Kaul as they vote for other offices.
On the drive from Oshkosh to a rally in Mazomanie, Wikler pulls up a spreadsheet on his phone. It’s a daily count of the early and absentee vote — various slices of how many have been cast and how that compares to the 2018 midterm cycle. There’s not much to interpret about the possible results, but it helps him keep tabs on how many absentee ballots haven’t been returned, allowing Wikler to direct volunteers to follow up with those voters. He also sees a live count of ballots to be “cured,” or corrected due to some flaw that throws their validity into question. “That’s the truly terrifying stuff,” Wikler says. (Much of the state party’s budget is allocated for election protection, and organizing operation transitions to vote defense as ballots are counted.)
Numbers are a source of comfort to Wikler, almost affording a sense of control on a game board tilted wildly against him. If every Democratic candidate for state assembly turns out just 250 people who otherwise wouldn’t have voted — or if each of the 7,000 voting precincts finds just three — Democrats could deliver the same 20,000-point statewide margin that gave Biden the White House in 2020. His statistics can also be daunting: The last time a Democratic candidate won the Wisconsin governor’s race while his party held the presidency was 1962. Wikler often deploys that fact in his canvass kickoffs as a means, he hopes, to inspire. “It’s a lot riding on everyone’s shoulders,” he said at a small rally for Evers in Mazomanie that afternoon. “But it also means that everyone here has a superpower,” he adds, another favorite line. “Your time and your vote will have a bigger impact on the future of everyone in this country than the calls and knocks of just about anyone else, ever.”
Wikler lives by his party’s data model, an insurance policy against polling that has failed to accurately predict Wisconsin’s electoral outcomes for years. Wikler’s model had almost perfectly predicted the Democratic vote, but failed to account for some of the surge among Republican turnout — ”the result was too close for comfort,” Wikler recalls. As we drove, Wikler listed off a half dozen ways the party is measuring support and tracking changes in the mood of the electorate. Wikler declined to explain his methods on the record, but he knows this for sure about 2022: Democrats can win by a sliver, but could lose by much more. “I don’t live or die by any of this stuff,” Wikler explains. “The most important thing is that it allows us to allocate across different types of efforts.”
In the campaign’s final moments, that looks like “trying to turn the dial up everywhere,” Wikler tells me. The state party is running ads for the governor’s race out of Duluth and Minneapolis, Minnesota, to catch any Wisconsinites trapped in those television markets. He and allies are embarking on an enormous door-knocking effort in Milwaukee, a program that got short shrift during the pandemic in 2020 — “physically showing up is really important,” Wikler explains. He overhauled the sign distribution program in the state to get more campaign signs up to rural areas, an effort to eke out those final three voters per wards that could tip the scales.
For Wikler, Election Day is just the beginning. The state holds an election for a State Supreme Court seat in April and, if a Democrat wins, it will reverse the conservative-held court and offer a check and balance on Wisconsin’s legislature and, potentially, GOP governor. “No matter what happens on Election Day, we’re gonna fight to win the Supreme Court race — incredibly hard,” Wikler says.
“It’s the last branch to hold on to as we fall off the cliff side,” he says, returning to his favored analogy. “Or it’s the first step on the path towards actually making our state a democracy.”